Why did I become a rabbi? The rabbinate encompasses many of the things I love best: learning, meeting people and hearing their stories, observing and reflecting on the world around me, writing, and making meaning out of that which may seem meaningless. This is a record of my encounters with the people, places, and ideas in my milieu so far.
We are here today at Yizkor
to remember our loved ones. While we are in a large community, we will stand as
individuals and recall personal relationships with parents, siblings, children
and spouses. Maybe we are here today to remember our Mom. Or we are here to
remember our Dad. Or, our brother. Or, a sister. A child. Even if time
has passed, perhaps we are here to a shed a tear as we remember the Great Love
of our Life.
On this day when we don’t
eat or drink, our day is made even more difficult, remembering our loved ones
who have passed.
If they left us this year,
back when we were children,
or any time in between,
Yizkor brings up memories
and often tears.
While we gather as
individuals, look around, right now this expanded room is the fullest it
will be all year. We join as one community to share our grief and pain.
As part of an even larger
community we said goodbye to so many people this year who left their mark
on the national and international stage.
First lady Nancy Reagan,
Justice Antonin Scalia, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, and people in the arts
like Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman and Harper Lee.
Also included in the list
of those lost this year are two men - both of whom were profoundly influential
in their respective work on behalf of the Jewish people. I want us to remember this morning; two men
who represent two models of Jewish renewal and resilience. One became American,
and built a moral message for Jews and for the world. The other built the
Jewish State. The world, and the Jewish people in particular, lost both Elie
Wiesel and Shimon Peres this year,
Zichronam L’vracha, and the world is poorer for it.
The next generation will
never have the opportunity to learn first hand from their wisdom, like so many
of us did during their lives.
In Unetane Tokef we read
“mi bkitzo umi lo b’kitzo” Who in the fullness of years and who before? At ages
87 and 93, Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres lived a fullness of years, but our
world is now bereft because they have passed into the World to Come.
Elie Wiesel and Shimon
Peres lived very different lives.
One started his life in
Transylvania which is now Romania, the other began in Poland which is now
One lived through the Shoah
and documented his experience in a book he called Night. The other
escaped early enough, but members of his family were burned to death, locked in
About 100 people attended
one of the funerals, across the river in Manhattan. Elie Weisel was laid to
rest in Westchester.
Shimon Peres’ funeral
attracted leaders from 70 nations and he was laid to rest at Mt Herzl in
Jerusalem, in the Great Leaders of the Nation
section between former Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak
Shimon Peres and Elie
Wiesel knew each other. In 2013, one of these men presented Israel’s
Presidential Medal of Distinction, while the other received it.
When Shimon Peres put the
decoration on Elie Wiesel he praised him and said: "This is a great honor
and privilege for me to bestow upon you the President's Medal. The Holocaust
taught us that killing isn't done just with guns and weapons, but also with
apathy, and you Elie, are saving the world from that apathy. You are waving the
flag of humanity, preventing bloodshed and challenging racism and
anti-Semitism, as well as preventing war. You personally went through the most
atrocious horrors of humanity, and as a Holocaust survivor you chose to
dedicate your life to deliver the message – never again."
Elie Wiesel thanked Shimon
Peres and responded trembling: "I'm completely overwhelmed. Israel is in
the center of my life, and even though I don't live in Israel, Israel lives
within me. I now see myself as an honorary Israeli. Life is composed of
moments, not only years, and this moment is worth an entire life."
Both men loved Israel.
Along the way, both men
followed in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt, Lester B Pearson and Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. and were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
And, both men were singled
out by name last week by President Obama in his final Rosh Hashanah address.
Think about how sad we were
when these legendary men passed away. And we did not even know them personally.
They were notjust
giant public Jewish figures.
Both Elie Wiesel and Shimon
Peres were fathers, husbands and grandfathers.
We so often remember change-makers
by eulogies made by equally famous people. But we really get to know a person
by the words and thoughts of their immediate family.
When Elisha Wiesel, son of
Elie Wiesel was asked by Tablet Magazine, what
did your father want his legacy to the world to be? This is how he responded:
to be thought of as a good Jew. That was the only standard by which he measured
himself. In most conversations, it wasn’t about which president he met or any
of that—all of which was meaningful to him; he valued that he had grown to play
a role on the world stage.
looked at himself as his mother and father and grandparents would have
evaluated him. That was always in his mind, what would they think of him and
his life and what he had made of it.
the guiding principle that governed that lens was always, “Have I been a good
many different things to him. If you unpacked what a good Jew was, it meant
being a good human being and a good father; a leader in the community when
leadership was needed; a good husband; someone who respected and brought
respect to the memory and traditions and name of his ancestors; someone who was
humbled by the concept of man’s place in the universe but still felt mandated
to fix the world; and someone who, when approached by people, would make time
to talk with them and make them feel welcomed and listened to.
You came to shul today for
Yizkor. You will recite the words “in loving testimony to their lives, I pledge
tzedakah to help perpetuate the ideals important to them.”
Can you also stand and
recite the prayers with confidence that you are a “good Jew,” employing
Elie Wiesel’s definition.
Are you a good human being?
Have you been a leader when
leadership was needed?
Are your actions worthy of
How have you brought
respect to the memory and traditions and names of your ancestors?
How do you think your
parents or grandparents would evaluate you and your relationship to Judaism?
How do you perpetuate the
ideas that are important to them?
Moments before a young
Shimon Peres - then Shimon Persky - departed with his family to their new life
in Palestine from the Bagdanov station, he faced his grandfather Zvi Meltzer
for the last time. The Old Man cast a deep look into his grandson’s face and
with emotion he uttered his last words to the boy. They were “Be a Jew,
At Shimon Peres’ funeral,
Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton spoke, as did the author Amos Oz,
Israeli current President Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu. We got to know
the real Shimon through the words of his children who publicly said
farewell to their father.
In his eulogy, Chemi Peres, his youngest child said:
You kept your promise to
your beloved grandfather, when you bid him farewell on your first stop on the
way to the Land of Israel. You never forgot what it means to be a Jew. And I
promise you that neither will I.
Elie Wiesel’s message: Be a
Shimon Peres’ message: Be a
Momentarily, we will stand
and recite the memorial prayers.
Saying the Yizkor prayers
is a way to continue the chain of tradition, to remember
those dear to us who we’ve lost, and to reinforce the fact that for thousands
of years, Jews have been transmitting from generation to generation the values
and the legacy of Judaism.
Yizkor is only recited 4
time a year. Today, and the final days of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Only 4
days of the year are tasked with ritually remembering the past.
The rest of Judaism is
about perpetuating our future.
conclude Yizkor, take with you the lessons that your parents, children, spouse
and siblings taught you. Take the best of them with you when you exit this
sacred room and then teach them to your children and grandchildren.
Just as the entire Jewish
people, and the entire world can learn from the lives of Elie Wiesel and Shimon
Peres, and take their best values with them, so too must you do that with those
who are gone ….
In Yoni Peres’s eulogy for
his father, he shared the following:
When asked what he would
like to have inscribed on his tombstone after death, Shimon Peres said, without
hesitation, “He was too young to die.” Think about that for a moment.
And then live every day of
your life with this idea in the back of your mind: or, as the poet Mary Oliver
would ask, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
the year 2000, I applied to and was accepted into a fellowship of people
from all over North America, applying to graduate school to become Jewish
Communal professionals.The fellowship
brings together students becoming cantors, rabbis, educators, social workers,
academics, and non-profit managers/CEOs from across religious denominations
into a community called the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.
Wexner Graduate Fellowship was created so that Jewish professionals from
different backgrounds and orientations might reach across boundaries of
religious observance, beliefs, and disciplines to create bridges and
friendships that otherwise might never have been.
the time, I thought the best part of the fellowship was that the program paid
for the majority of graduate school and brought us together for all-expense
paid conferences twice a year for several days of learning.And it’s true, having the Wexner fellowship
during graduate school was extraordinary.But the gift of tuition and professional development pales in comparison
to what I’ve gained since then, in the last 11 years since I completed
the graduate fellowship and became a part of the Wexner Alumni community.
alumni of the program include some of the most interesting and diverse leaders
in their respective fields of Jewish communal life.There are right-leaning Orthodox rabbis and
secular humanist academics who have studied together and learned from one
another, each having gained an invaluable tool: how to listen to and accept
difference without becoming defensive, reactive, or closed-down.In fact, we’ve learned not just to tolerate
difference, but to welcome it.We’ve
learned that expanding the circle of those with whom we share ideas and challenges
strengthens us all, and it strengthens the Jewish people as a whole.
could never have known in 2000 how my acceptance into this fellowship would
change me; how it would open my eyes and my heart to people who looked and
sounded and thought SO differently than I did.
when I look around at our world today in 2016, I lament the uniqueness of these
skills.The vast majority of us have
limited capacity for anything or anyone different from us.We proudly wave our flags, declaring our
political and social affiliations in much the same way as we declare loyalty to
a favorite football team.It’s me versus you.My team or yours.If you win, I lose.If I win, you lose.And none of us seems to see that when we live
like this, we all lose.
dare say the discourse in our country in 2016 is less tolerant, less open to
difference, and more polarized than it’s been since the Civil War.Sure, issues and ideologies have created
divisions in our society many times in the past, but the stark intolerance for
even a conversation with someone from a different perspective is strikingly
is what worries me most.There exists a
social acceptability to refusing to accept or understand differences of
opinion.And this acceptability of a
polarized society alongside threats of violence against those who disagree
makes it a particularly scary time.
Jews have a collective memory of an eerily similar time in history: Nazi
Germany.Hitler rose to power and was
democratically elected by a populace mobilized to hate those who were
different; he promised to bring the people of Germany together with his
nationalist platform - using a combination of political acuity, deceptiveness,
and evasion. He advocated violence against anyone who disagreed with his ideas
or looked or sounded different than his ideal.
strikingly similar arena exists today, not just in national politics, but in
our own communal life as well.
may have read an article last week in the JTA, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency
about something that happened to a colleague of mine.
Jewish educator and a rabbi who has been the target of a smear campaign taking
aim at her love for Israel and professional integrity. She has received
hundreds of pieces of hate mail, aggressive phone calls, social media attacks,
attempts to have her fired from her job and even death threats.
reason?She supports a different
political position on Israel than do her attackers.One of the letters she received began with a
harsh critique of her political beliefs and then continued,“I regretfully must express my utmost hope that
you are hit by a car to put a stop to the injury you will cause the children
that I love.”
As the authors of the JTA piece note, “This was not an anonymous comment hiding in the murky
depths of a blog post somewhere. It was a signed letter fervently praying for
the violent demise of a leader in the community.”
is this about?When did it become
socially acceptable to call for the death of someone whose ideology differs
from our own?
we as a society forgotten what it means to be part of a democracy?To be a citizen of a country founded to be a
place of refuge for those whose political or religious beliefs differed from
is decidedly un-Jewish.Our Talmud is a
compilation of disagreements between respected sages, each of whom were given a
voice in the text and canonized alongside one another.The Talmud includes even minority opinions,
opinions that were never instituted as law, opinions from sages more and less respected as scholars and
leaders of their time.The editors of
the Talmud as it exists today not only tolerated or valued differences of
opinion, they venerated them.The more
ideas, the more scholarly debate, the more potential to learn.
fact, the Talmud holds up as a model two
schools of opinion that historically disagreed about everything and
anything.They disagreed about the
proper way to light a Chanukkah menorah; about the proper way to purify
something that’s been ritually contaminated; and the specifics of Jewish legal
divorce law.They disagreed about the
specifics of keeping kosher; the laws about appropriate behavior between men
and women; and about what constitutes legal marriage.
yet, the Talmud teaches - boasting about the fact - that the two schools would
eat together, study together, and marry each other.They were brethren.They placed high value on the opportunity to
debate and discuss.And these
disagreements did not isolate them from one other.They socialized, they co-mingled, they
respected one another and each one’s right to hold a different view.
of opinion were known as “disagreements for the sake of heaven” - which means
that their utmost hope was to sharpen their understanding of ideas and texts -
not to be right, not to prove that the Other was wrong.But to try to determine the best way to act.
the Talmud recounts a story where the
conflict between these two houses came to a head and their opinions differed so
much that it seemed there existed two completely different Torahs.At this point, the Talmud teaches, “a divine
voice came down and said, ‘Elu v’Elu
Divrei Elohim Chayim,” (which means “these and also those are words of the
living God”).The argument is
interrupted by a heavenly voice proclaiming that there is truth in both
opinions, even as the two ideas seemed to completely contradict one another.
lest we think that it’s like a “stale mate” in chess or a “draw” in checkers,
in which there is no conclusive end to the exchange, the heavenly voice
concludes,“v’HaHalakha K’Beit Hillel”.Even though there was value - even
divinity - in both opinions, the law was to go according to this one only.
differing opinions on the matter were valued, the society had to rely on rules
to guide right action.The ultimate
value, shared by both groups, was to co-exist in one society strong enough to
hold space for difference.It wasn’t
right to create two Torahs.They did not
crave autonomy or uniformity - but rather to live beside and among those with
whom they disagreed.
first half of the heavenly voice’s message provided the authenticity of two
very different schools of thought.And
the second half of the message allowed for the creation of a social fabric in
which both parties could co-exist with one standard of behavior.The opinion chosen and the opinion not
chosen are both holy.We are to learn
from both and to respect both as viable ways to understand things.But we live by only one of them.
ancestors knew how to argue without fighting. They never would have imagined
inciting violence against the opposition.They would not have understood the social, political, and intellectual
polarization that exists today.
world of the Jewish sages was a society deeply invested in serving God, finding
the way that best advocated justice, tolerance, and peace.They valued opportunities to learn - not just
from those who shared their opinions and biases, but, all the more so, people
who looked at the same world with completely different eyes.
would argue that a culture unwilling to tolerate difference is one that shuns
learning.A group that demands
uniformity and is willing only to hear that with which it already agrees, is
one incapable of growing.
modern orthodox rabbi and scholar, David Hartman, z”l, wrote a book whose
title, A Heart of Many Rooms, draws its inspiration from a text in
Tosefta Sotah suggesting that we place in one room those ideas and perspectives
with which we agree, and then in another room those with which we don’t
agree.This is what creates a heart of
wisdom: the ability to hold two differing positions - the holy and the profane,
the sacred and the mundane - in one heart.Your heart.
November draws closer and the vitriol we hear likely becomes uglier and more
pointed, I want to encourage us all to remember the wisdom of the Jewish
tradition - the wisdom of a heart - and a community - of many rooms.
build a community - here at Am Echod - and in spaces throughout our lives -
where diversity and difference are cherished, where we find we can learn and
grow from an open conversation with those who see the world very differently
than do we.Invite in the opportunity to
be challenged by those who look and sound different than you do.Remember: these
and those are the words of the Living God.And understand that when the election draws to a close, we must choose
one path to walk together.
we embrace difference, we each grow stronger and wiser.Let this wisdom guide our steps and our
following was posted on Facebook by Natasha Howell, a young woman of color, on
July 8, 2016, in Andover, Massachusetts.
this morning I went into a convenient store to get a protein bar. As I walked
through the door, I noticed that there were two white police officers (one
about my age, the other several years older) talking to the clerk (an older
white woman) behind the counter about the shootings that have gone on in the
past few days.
all looked at me and fell silent.
went about my business to get what I was looking for, as I turned back up the
aisle to go pay, the oldest officer was standing at the top of the isle
watching me. As I got closer he asked me, "How I was doing? I replied,
"Okay, and you? He looked at me with a strange look and asked me,
"How are you really doing?" I looked at him and said "I'm
tired!" His reply was, "me too." Then he said, "I guess
it's not easy being either of us right now is it." I said, "No, it's
not." Then he hugged me and I cried. I had never seen that man before in
my life. I have no idea why he was moved to talk to me.
I do know is that he and I shared a moment this morning, that was absolutely
beautiful. No judgments, No justifications, just two people sharing a
don’t know Natasha Powell but her post went viral.
and the police officer moved past skin color and a police uniform. They
stopped thinking about their own agenda and engaged in active listening with
the Other. In an era where so many people talk at each other and over
each other, these two shared a sacred moment.
I think this is why the post went viral. In a time when people don’t listen
anymore, Natasha and the police officer did just the opposite. People grabbed
onto a story of two people acknowledging and listening to one another.
post reflects what I think is a universal theme of these Yamim Noraim we are
are reminded both subtly and explicitly that part of being in the human
family is to listen to one another. The dual acts of listening and hearing are
woven through our High Holy Days machzor, in the liturgy, Torah readings
and the haftorah, but they are most profoundly introduced through the shofar.
we blow the shofar, the bracha, the blessing that is recited is
Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha’olam,
asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu
Blessed are You, Lord our God,
who makes us holy with mitzvot
and gives us the mitzvah of
the sound of the shofar.
piercing sound of the shofar forces us to stop and listen to it.
It is hard to ignore a shofar blast.
don’t need to be able to see it in order to hear it. In fact, a shofar is
nothing special to look at.
are not encouraged to adorn it and make it beautiful, like we are with so many
other mitzvot, such as our Sukkahs or our Shabbat tables.
a shofar, the only one of the five senses we need to use is our hearing. The shofar reaches our
ears like an alarm clock following a long slumber. It is an alarm clock
where we can’t press Snooze and just turn off and go back to sleep.
have to listen.
without the benefit of the sound of a shofar, Natasha and the police officer
did what the shofar instructs us to. It led the
police officer in our story to look past the color of Natasha’s skin and to
discover the spark of God in her, and listen to her, shutting out everything
else around them. The clerk, his partner, the protein bar; everything became
did not need a shofar, but we do. We
need the shofar to get past some of the images that inundate us.
That seldom happens in
this age of images. We spend so much of our day in front of televisions,
computers, phones and video games.
checking email and Facebook as soon as I wake up. Al Chet for keeping
the laptop on the table during precious family dinner. Al Chet for
watching our children’s lives unfold through our cameras instead of being
present, and listening to their first sounds, sentences and questions. For so
many of us, our lives take place through little screens in front of our eyes.
The shofar tells us to put them away and really be present in
During these Day of
Awe we are reminded to rebalance our senses and focus on what really matters. We
are tasked with actively increasing what
we hear and decreasing what we see.
And the shofar is not
the only sound that serves that purpose.
Through the haunting Unetaneh Tokef prayer we are reminded
of the need to listen to those around us and to ourselves.
We all pause to hear the shofar. The message is clear.
It is unsettling because we afford ourselves so few opportunities to do
When it rains, we look and watch outside instead of listening
to the drizzle. When we are by a body of water, we look, but rarely hear the
sound of the waves crashing. Both of these sounds are both so gorgeous, but
they often go unheard in our daily rush. The shofar tells us there is another
way. But it takes work. Tekiyah!
Do we make time in our lives to hear
the beauty and power of nature?
There is a dimension beyond hearing, and that is LISTENING, when we use our ears to have
a dialogue with people that truly improve our lives. The message is clear.
must listen to what is unheard.
Our world , this
country, and Israel desperately need more listening. Our communities and
families need to slow down and find new ways to connect. We need moments. We
need times to slow down. We need clear spaces to listen to each other and
listen to ourselves. We need to make room to hear another voice speak.
During these ten days, the biggest gift we can give to
ourselves and to each others it to really take time to listen to ourselves, and
to each other.
Find a place away from the static and ask yourself, what must
I do in order to actually hear the people in my life? Try it as an exercise. It
will deepen your relationships with others.
We seem to have lost the ability to hear and, worse, the ability
to listen, in the buzz of 21st century life. The High Holidays in general
- and the shofar in particular -are an invitation to hit “system reset” on our
lives and our patterns of interacting in the world.
I imagine this was the idea behind the poem,
“Listen!” by Rabbis Jack Riemer and Harold Kushner.The poem reads,
Judaism begins with the commandment: Hear, O Israel! But what
does it really mean to “hear?”
The person who attends a concert
With a mind on business,
Hears — but does not really hear.
The person who walks amid the songs of birds
And thinks only of what will be served for dinner,
Hears — but does not really hear.
The one who listens to the words of a friend
Or a spouse or child,
And does not catch the note of urgency:
‘Notice me, help me, care about me,”
Hears — but does not really hear.
The person who listens to the news
And thinks only of how it will affect business,
Hears — but does not really hear,
The person who stifles the sound of conscience
And thinks “I have done enough already”
Hears — but does not really hear.
The person who hears the Hazzan pray
And does not feel the call to join in prayer,
Hears — but does not really hear.
The person who listens to the rabbi’s sermon
And thinks that someone else is being addressed,
Hears — but does not really hear.
On this Rosh Hashana, O Lord, Sharpen our ability to hear.
May we hear the music of the world,
And the infant’s cry,
and the lover’s sigh.
May we hear the call for help of the lonely soul,
And the sound of the breaking heart.
May we hear the words of our friends,
And also their unspoken pleas and dreams.
May we hear within ourselves the yearnings
That are struggling for expression.
May we hear You, O G-d.
For only if we hear You
Do we have the right to hope
That you will hear us.
Hear the prayers we offer to you this day, O G-d. And may we
hear them too.